By Philip Blenkinsop and Gus Trompiz
BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) – Belgium has confirmed an outbreak of African swine fever, marking a further spread of the disease that has hit farms in Eastern Europe and China and which could now threaten Western Europe’s large pig industry.
Belgium’s food safety agency on Thursday said that African swine fever (ASF) had been detected in the Etalle district near the French border, after the death of several wild boars raised suspicions that the virus was present.
This is the first reported case of the disease in Belgium since 1985.
Western European countries have been trying to avert the spread of the disease, which is highly contagious among pigs and difficult to eradicate, after a growing number of cases in Eastern Europe, including in EU members such as Romania.
The European Commission said it will deploy a team of experts this weekend to coordinate with Belgian authorities over the swine fever cases and the EU health commissioner will meet ministers of Belgian regions Wallonia and Flanders on Monday.
One Flemish farmers’ group, ABS, called for the cull of wild boars to protect farm pigs, while Wallonia’s agriculture ministry said it has banned hunting in a 63,000 hectare-wide (155,676 acre) area to prevent wild boars from spreading out.
“The Belgian authorities announced yesterday two isolated cases of African swine fever in two wild boars found dead in the forest in the region of Etalle,” a Commission spokeswoman told a news conference in Brussels, adding the EU executive was in close contact with Belgian authorities.
France’s agriculture ministry announced reinforced surveillance in four administrative departments (counties) bordering Belgium and extra measures to protect pig farms and slaughterhouses.
“This new outbreak represents the expansion of the disease, for the first time during the current pandemic, into Western Europe,” said Paul Sundberg, executive director of the Swine Health Information Center in the United States.
“This new outbreak may represent a new change in the epidemiologic situation of ASF worldwide, suggesting that the disease may have reached pandemic proportions.”
The spread of the virus has already led to the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of pigs in Eastern Europe, while in China, the world’s biggest pork producer, a series of cases since August has led to measures including a ban on transporting animals and feeding food waste to pigs in affected provinces.
The EU is collectively the world’s second-largest pigmeat producer after China and the largest exporter, with most of its pork industry concentrated in Germany, Denmark, France and Spain.
Germany earlier this year issued a decree to allow hunters to shoot wild boar year-round to stop the animals, which can carry African swine fever, from passing the deadly infection on to farm pigs.
Experts say the virus can also be spread through food products and by people, even though it is not harmful to humans. There is no vaccine or treatment for it.
The most recent cases in Europe could be linked to food thrown away by people who had traveled from zones where the disease is present, Belgium’s food safety agency said in its statement.
“When you start to have cases at quite some distance from previously reported ones there is concern for everyone,” Justin Sherrard, global strategist, animal protein, at Rabobank, said.
(Additional reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris, Tom Polansek in Chicago and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing Mark Heinrich and Louise Heavens)